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Open access

The Double Force of Vulnerability

Ethnography and Environmental Justice

Grant M. Gutierrez, Dana E. Powell, and T. L. Pendergrast


This article reviews ethnographic literature of environmental justice (EJ). Both a social movement and scholarship, EJ is a crucial domain for examining the intersections of environment, well-being, and social power, and yet has largely been dominated by quantitative and legal analyses. A minority literature in comparison, ethnography attends to other valences of injustice and modes of inequality. Through this review, we argue that ethnographies of EJ forward our understanding of how environmental vulnerability is lived, as communities experience and confront toxic environments. Following a genealogy of EJ, we explore three prominent ethnographic thematics of EJ: the production of vulnerability through embodied toxicity; the ways that injustice becomes embedded in landscapes; and how processes like research collaborations and legal interventions become places of thinking and doing the work of justice. Finally, we identify emergent trends and challenges, suggesting future research directions for ethnographic consideration.

Open access


Pollution and Toxicity: Cultivating Ecological Practices for Troubled Times

Josh Fisher, Mary Mostafanezhad, Alex Nading, and Sarah Marie Wiebe

Plastic bags ride the currents of the Pacific Ocean and collect in the Mariana Trench; stockpiles of nuclear waste are pumped deep into Earth's outer crust; smoke and smog (a fusion of particulate matter and ozone) settle in above sprawling urban colonies, slowly killing their denizens; spent oxygen canisters join “forever chemicals” on the snows of Everest; and billions of pieces of space debris endlessly fall in Low Earth Orbit, just beyond a thin and rapidly changing breathable atmosphere. So goes the narrative of the Anthropocene, a purportedly new geological epoch demarcated by the planetary effects of human activity.

The symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) understood pollution as “matter out of place,” a kind of disorder that necessarily prompts efforts to “organize” the environment. Anthropologists, geographers, and other social scientists have since pushed the conversation forward by inquiring into the materiality of pollution, the toxicity that manifests in situated encounters between bodies and environments, and the co-production of pollution/toxicity—two sides of the same coin, one overflowing boundaries and the other seeping in—through those extended networks of physicochemical, organic, and sociocultural life that constitute local and global political ecologies.

This issue of Environment and Society explores current thinking about pollution and toxicity at the intersection of political ecology, symbolic anthropology, and science and technology studies. The articles address a broad range of scholarly perspectives, theoretical alliances, and methodological and epistemological approaches. They collectively contribute to historical and contemporary framings of pollution and toxicity and to new understandings of their discursive and material co-production, and they outline the stakes of such an analysis for diverse communities of human and nonhuman beings. Authors in this issue address entangled themes such as the materiality of pollution/toxicity, how it is smelled, tasted, felt, experienced, embodied, or symbolized, both in moments of crisis and in daily life. Articles also home in on how and by whom the impacts—material, sociocultural, political, ethical, etc.—of pollution/toxicity are measured or otherwise accounted for technoscientifically, socioculturally, and historically. These accountings mediate governance mechanisms through policies, infrastructures, and ordinary acts of care and containment (sweeping, cleaning, planting, repairing). Finally, authors consider how pollution/toxicity reshapes sociopolitical life.

Open access

Out of Place in Outer Space?

Exploring Orbital Debris through Geographical Imaginations

Hannah Hunter and Elizabeth Nelson


Increasing human activity in orbital space has resulted in copious material externalities known as “orbital debris.” These objects threaten the orbital operations of hegemonic stakeholders including states, corporations, and scientists, for whom debris present a significant problem. We argue that the geographical imaginations of powerful stakeholders shape conceptions of orbital debris and limit engagement with these objects. By engaging with interdisciplinary literature that considers orbital debris and geographical imaginations of outer space, we encourage a more capacious approach to orbital debris that goes beyond hegemonic narratives focused on functionality. We explore the connections between debris and injustice, arguing that these objects must also be considered in relation to terrestrial power and ecology. We then contemplate the possibilities that counter-hegemonic framings present when considering speculative futures of orbital space. In these ways, we explore how and why debris are variously engaged with as pollutants, risks, opportunities, or otherwise.

Open access

Pollution, Health, and Disaster

Emerging Contributions in Ethnographic Research

Alexa S. Dietrich


The materiality of pollution is increasingly embodied in humans, animals, and the living environment. Ethnographic research, especially from within the fields broadly construed as medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, disaster anthropology, and science and technology studies are all positioned to make important contributions to understanding present lived experiences in disastrous environmental contexts. This article examines points of articulation within recent research in these areas, which have much in common but are not always in conversation with one another. Research and writing collaborations, as well as shared knowledge bases between ethnographic researchers who center different aspects of the spectrum of toxics-based environmental health, are needed to better account for and address the material and lived realities of increasing pollution levels in the time of a warming climate.

Open access

The Social Life of the “Forever Chemical”

PFAS Pollution Legacies and Toxic Events

Daniel Renfrew and Thomas W. Pearson


This article examines the social life of PFAS contamination (a class of several thousand synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and maps the growing research in the social sciences on the unique conundrums and complex travels of the “forever chemical.” We explore social, political, and cultural dimensions of PFAS toxicity, especially how PFAS move from unseen sites into individual bodies and into the public eye in late industrial contexts; how toxicity is comprehended, experienced, and imagined; the factors shaping regulatory action and ignorance; and how PFAS have been the subject of competing forms of knowledge production. Lastly, we highlight how people mobilize collectively, or become demobilized, in response to PFAS pollution/toxicity. We argue that PFAS exposure experiences, perceptions, and responses move dynamically through a “toxicity continuum” spanning invisibility, suffering, resignation, and refusal. We offer the concept of the “toxic event” as a way to make sense of the contexts and conditions by which otherwise invisible pollution/toxicity turns into public, mass-mediated, and political episodes. We ground our review in our ongoing multisited ethnographic research on the PFAS exposure experience.

Open access

Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene

Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity

Yogi Hale Hendlin


Faced with the non-optional acceptance of toxic chemical artifacts, the ubiquitous interweaving of chemicals in our social fabric often exists out of sight and out of mind. Yet, for many, toxic exposures signal life-changing or life-ending events, phantom threats that fail to appear as such until they become too late to mitigate. Assessments of toxicological risk consist of what Sheila Jasanoff calls “sociotechnical imaginaries,” arbitrations between calculated costs and benefits, known risks and scientifically wrought justifications of safety. Prevalent financial conflicts of interest and the socially determined hazards posed by chemical exposure suggest that chemical safety assessments and regulations are a form of postnormal science. Focusing on the histories of risk assessments of pesticides such as DDT, atrazine, PFAS, and glyphosate, this article critically reviews Michel Serres's notion of “appropriation by contamination.”

Open access

Toxic Research

Political Ecologies and the Matter of Damage

Noah Theriault and Simi Kang


In a world saturated by toxic substances, the plight of exposed populations has figured prominently in a transdisciplinary body of work that we call political ecologies of toxics. This has, in turn, sparked concerns about the unintended consequences of what Eve Tuck calls “damage-centered research,” which can magnify the very harms it seeks to mitigate. Here, we examine what political ecologists have done to address these concerns. Beginning with work that links toxic harm to broader forces of dispossession and violence, we turn next to reckonings with the queerness, generativity, and even protectiveness of toxics. Together, these studies reveal how the fetishization of purity obscures complex forms of toxic entanglement, stigmatizes “polluted” bodies, and can thereby do as much harm as toxics themselves. We conclude by showing, in dialog with Tuck, how a range of collaborative methodologies (feminist, decolonial, Indigenous, and more-than-human) have advanced our understanding of toxic harm while repositioning research as a form of community-led collective action.

Open access

Toxic Sensorium

Agrochemicals in the African Anthropocene

Serena Stein and Jessie Luna


Pesticides and toxicity are constitutive features of modernization in Africa, despite ongoing portrayals of the continent as “too poor to pollute.” This article examines social science scholarship on agricultural pesticide expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa. We recount the rise of agrochemical usage in colonial projects that placed African smallholder farmers at the forefront of toxic vulnerability. We then outline prevalent literature on “knowledge deficits” and unsafe farmer practices as approaches that can downplay deeper structures. Missing in this literature, we argue, are the embodied and sensory experiences of African farmers as they become pesticide users, even amid an awareness of toxicity. Drawing on ethnographic research in Mozambique and Burkina Faso, we explore how the “toxic sensorium” of using agrochemicals intersects with farmers’ projects of modern aspiration. This approach can help elucidate why and how differently situated farmers live with pesticides, thereby expanding existing literature on structural violence and knowledge gaps.

Open access

Toxic Waste and Race in Twenty-First Century America

Neighborhood Poverty and Racial Composition in the Siting of Hazardous Waste Facilities

Michael Mascarenhas, Ryken Grattet, and Kathleen Mege


In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released its groundbreaking study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. The report found race to be the most significant predictor of where hazardous waste facilities were located in the United States. We review this and other studies of environmental racism in an effort to explain the relationship between race and the proximity to hazardous waste facilities. More recent research provides some evidence that the effect is causal, where polluting industries follow the path of least resistance. To date, the published work using Census data ends in 2000, which neglects the period when economic and political changes may have worsened the relationship between race and toxic exposure. Thus, we replicate findings using data from 2010 to show that racial disparities remain persistent in 2010. We conclude with a call for further research on how race and siting have changed during the 2010s.

Restricted access

Contact with Nature as Essential to the Human Experience

Reflections on Pandemic Confinement

Alan E. Kazdin and Pablo Vidal-González


Human contact with nature is more important than ever before considering the global confinement brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased urbanization of society, and increased rates of mental disorders and threats to human well-being. This article conveys the importance of contact with nature from three perspectives: historical, sociocultural, and scientific. These perspectives convey the many ways in which contact with nature is essential to human life, the multiple ways in which this is expressed, and the broad range of benefits this has. The case for preserving the natural environment continues to be made in light of the dangers of climate change, the deleterious effects of pollution, and the importance of habitats. We add to the case by underscoring how human well-being has depended on contact with natural environments and how the need for this contact is more salient now than ever before.